The writer narrates a harrowing tale of corporate indifference to the plight of a small investor.

Three years ago, my husband and I planned some retirement investments for a safe and secure future, which we hoped would lead to a ‘happy retired life’. Being literate, aware and accomplished professionals, we first surveyed the great variety of investment options available across the internet, in glossy pamphlets and alluring ads, and also took the advice of colleagues and friends who recommended several insurance and other schemes. We contacted a few of them and an entourage of personnel from public to private sector insurance and banking institutions made a flattering beeline to our home. We were edified and enticed into believing that each of their schemes (sic) was the best for us. Finally, when we zeroed in on some options, our dear ‘relationship’ and ‘professional’ managers literally handheld us to sign where applicable because their motto was to serve to their best and, after all, customers are kings, queens and potential ‘messiahs’ of their infallible products.

And we actually did do this: advise some of our friends and relatives where and how to invest because we held in such high esteem these institutions that served us, and the grand treatment that they provided. Like a newlywed couple on a honeymoon, we dreamt of our dividends, of comfort and prosperity in our newly retired life, all thanks to our investments in a tantalising “new immediate annuity pension policy”, in mutual funds and health policy schemes, and in other ‘products’. We then reminisced about how our real honeymoon had been fraught with the excitement and anxieties of what the future held for us as we had only one egg in our basket back then — but today, in our honeymoon phase, we had the pick of golden eggs built out of so many years of labour, and we imagined a leisurely wait would lead to yields. All was hunky dory: we had timely information and we were intimated about how well our investments were nested. We were cooing with security.

Then the most unexpected happened. It was not market volatility, not political instability, no external cause. My husband died suddenly. I cannot begin to describe the shock of this unexpected and terrible loss. No words can explain what I feel. It was in the middle of this devastating time that my life turned from the anticipation of a luxurious retirement to an anxious single woman trying to retrieve our ‘golden eggs’ nesting with various big name institutions.

In the days that followed, dealing with government and non-governmental institutions despite providing impeccable paperwork under these circumstances, killed the rest of us every day. Of course, we had genuine sympathies being expressed by every relationship manager and customer service individual, and standard letters of regret were mailed. The balm wore off, along with the soles of our feet, when we realised that we were the victims of abominable process-based delays and, worst of all, delayed internal communications within the very same institutions that had spread the red carpet under our feet. Colleagues sitting next to each other, ticking away on their computers, talking across desks to follow up on our case in good earnest made the most unbelievable mistakes. They misinformed us at every stage because they were in the process of learning about their highly marketed products themselves! Despite being novices we learnt to ask key questions most crucial to our own recoveries. A sample:

“What documents and paperwork are required from our end?”

“What supporting proof do you need, other than death certificate and appointment of legal heir, to establish that my spouse is dead?”

“What documents do you need from me to prove that I am his spouse/nominee?”

“Have you checked our documents and ticked off the checklist given to us?”

Despite this, in one case, at a bank for a certain investment which has a fancy name, when I requested transfer of nomination to my daughter’s name for a policy in my name with my husband named as nominee, they readily accepted the request with the required documents. How encouraging! But suddenly, over a phone call, they asked me to go to the gazette office and apply to change my own name and submit a notarised copy to them for processing the transfer! Why? Because they had made a manual error and filled out my name incorrectly at the time we purchased this great investment product (unbelievably, I was asked to change a name as common as ‘Lakshmi’)! Anyone reading this bit can comprehend how callous, insensitive and shoddy this big bank and its allied services are. I had to escalate this issue and I demanded to see my original papers, which to this day I have not been shown. They then offered a sheepish apology and promised to rectify the situation without making me change my identity, even though the process would take a while. Inept back-end operations, insensitive front desk officials and the March year-end — so they tell us to wait till they condescend to give us what is legitimately ours.

Be warned, no one tells you how and when the claims for various investments will be honoured. You have to ask endless questions to the person across the desk, who is dressed like a model and trained to speak in soft, low tones so that no one is privy to the false assurances he/she is making. Mind you, not a single word comes in writing. Even when a certain pension policy document is in black and white and clearly gives details of your actual investment post deductions and annuity payments assured, at the time of claim, the amount due to you as clearly stated in the policy document is not upheld. Innumerable reasons to short change the customer under the garb of logical explanations are quoted.

Banks which offer mutual funds through their agents keep your status on hold since agents are unavailable. Others want loads of signatures by witnesses and sureties, signed all over 10 pages across all sides, on stamped paper, each time a different denomination is quoted. So stamp paper vendors, revenue stamp dealers and court notaries are all beneficiaries of the process. This is the system that’s supposed to enable your claims on priority basis, especially when a spouse has died. I wondered why we had made these investments, which turned into nightmares at the time of recovery.

The good old post office savings bank and some public sector banks have been refreshingly and kindly obliging. In fact, in these extenuating and excruciatingly painful circumstances, they waived off the early release deductions and remitted the entire amounts due within seven working days.

It’s time to rethink the multinational, and our very own savvy private banking system, the credit and debit card divisions, the private sector insurance companies and posh banks spending crores of rupees on big stars and models to promote their products — their services should be confined only to the elite and not lure hardworking middle class people like us, who save their pennies by trusting the services offered by them with lavish smiles and mega promises.

It’s time to go back to conservative, simple and safe public sector institutions. These experiences reminded me of an article written by a notable satirist, Stephen Leacock, who in his piece called ‘My financial career’ speaks about how he decided to save his money in his socks after an inquisition by banks for opening an account. Well, today, one’s limbs may get chopped off if one commits such an audacity because even the ATM centres are vulnerable despite hi-tech CCTV cameras. My point here, though, is to keep your savings in flexible, liquid schemes and, particularly, ask at the very beginning:

“What happens if one of us dies?”

“What happens and how soon will my recoveries be processed, and would they give us what is stated in the document that is given at the time of buying the product?”“what is the sum assured,?” Even with a microscope you cannot find it anywhere in fine print.

“What guarantee and interest can they [the institutions] offer if the remittance process is so delayed and dodgy?”

After all, they are floating our moneys and accruing interest, aren’t they? Then, may be, some institutions may become more responsible. That’s why the cultural mindset of most Indians is to invest their savings in land or gold for liquidity, so that they don’t have to go begging to these suave institutions for recovering their own investments!

The writer is a psychologist, corporate trainer and executive coach.

lokhee@gmail.com.